Canadian author Sarah Leavitt makes an emotionally powerful debut with Tangles, a graphic memoir of how Alzheimer’s disease transformed not only her late mother but the entire family dynamic. 

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Both honesty and humor pervade the work, which should provide insight and comfort for readers who find themselves facing similar challenges. In a starred review, we said that it was “not simply the story of a disease, but of the flawed, complex, intelligent people whose lives it transformed.”

Why did you decide that the graphic medium was best suited to this sort of memoir?

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As soon as my mother got sick I started writing and drew tiny sketches in my journal so I wouldn’t forget what was happening. Her illness, and my desire to write about it, pushed me to take writing classes, and as time went on I started publishing small pieces in magazines and anthologies and thinking of myself as a writer.

At the same time I started drawing comics. Meanwhile, I knew I wanted to write a book about my mother, but I thought it would be prose. After she died, I cut out a bunch of drawings from my journals and made a little zine called My Mom Got Sick and Died, which I photocopied and sold at a couple comics fairs.

I had read some graphic memoirs like Maus and Persepolis and knew how powerful the form could be. The combining of words and images that happens in comics makes it an ideal medium for telling intense stories about complicated feelings—you can create layers of meaning in one single panel, combine humor and tragedy, convey a lot of ideas in a small space.

There's a lot of love in your narrative, but it's also sharply honest. Were you worried that sharing this story so honestly might hurt some of those you love?

I wasn’t worried about hurting people. I mean, I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and I left out some things that I felt it would be hurtful or disrespectful to include—these were things about other people that were not integral to the story.

I was more worried about people being mad at me, but at the same time I didn’t show the book to my family before it was published, because I knew that I wasn’t going to change it for anyone. I made sure that I was clear about my motives, that I showed myself in just as critical a light, and that I stuck closely to the story of me and my mother—that was my story to tell, and that was the focus of the book. My father and sister are really happy with the book

Did writing this book have cathartic or therapeutic value for you? Do you think reading it will for others?

Writing the book wasn’t cathartic for me, but readers [it was published in Canada in 2010 and in the UK in 2011] have told me that it was cathartic for them—people whose parents have dementia or other illnesses, and people who have some other reason to respond intensely to the story. Writing in my diary was cathartic for me, but by the time I got into working on the book in its final form, a number of years had passed.

As someone who also writes without illustration, do you consider yourself a writer who also draws, an artist who provides text for your drawings or someone who places equal import on both?

Good question. Since Tangles, I haven’t done much prose writing, though I still consider myself a writer. I also consider myself a cartoonist, though I would call myself a beginner cartoonist.

In Tangles, and in my work since then, my goal has been neither to illustrate text with drawings nor to annotate illustrations with text. I aspire to create combinations of words and images in which neither is more important, where they come together to create something better.

You call this a "tangled story." Did you feel like you untangled anything through the process of completing the book?

Yes, I had to be able to step away from the experience somewhat, to think about how different people’s stories fitted together, think about people’s motives and feelings. Writing Tangles was a way of making some sort of sense out of the senseless death of my mother, to give some kind of shape to a messy, traumatizing experience.  

Longtime music journalist Don McLeese is the author of Dwight Yoakam: A Thousand Miles From Nowhere, out now, from the University of Texas Press.